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Lucian Sârbu graduated from university with degrees in philosophy and marketing. He has been a contributor to various cultural magazines and is one of the authors of the Romanian site “Arguments and Facts”. He has written under a pseudonym for the most popular real estate blog in Romania, “The Real Estate Bubble”. Sârbu is the author of the book of essays “Truth and Democracy”, which was published in 2001 by the publishing house Paideia. Between 2012 and 2016 he was an active member in the leadership structures of the Romanian Socialist Party (PSR) and a member of the Group for Economic Policies of the European Left Party. He was a PSR candidate for the Romanian Senate in 2012 and also for European Parliament in 2014. At the moment, he is no longer active politically, but remains interested in Romanian political, economic and social developments.
This interview with Lucian Sârbu was made a few days after the Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, who fights for a new 5-year mandate, met with his American counterpart Donald Trump at the White House and received Trump’s support. After the meeting, various announcements and proposals for American-Romanian cooperation were made by Iohannis and various bilateral institutions: new American military bases in Romania, possible new American investments of up to 10 billion dollars and other goodwill gestures between the US and Romania, such as the easing of restrictions for Romanians travelling in the United States.
Mr. Sârbu, what are the stakes of the presidential election in Romania, which will take place in November 2019?
For me as an entrepreneur, the only stakes are preserving economic growth at an acceptable level. This means that the government should continue to support internal demand and to attract European funds. I have very low expectations from Iohannis in these two domains. Iohannis has just returned from a meeting with Trump, where he made – as far as I understand, some hazardous promises to Americans: the hosting of more American troops, a greater Romanian contingent in Afghanistan… Also, there is talk of relocating Turkey’s Incirlik base to Romania. All this increases useless military expenditure, which means that a potential Iohannis-friendly government will not have enough resources for civil matters. The guilt will probably be assigned to “the difficult inheritance” left by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which is a completely false interpretation.
I like to travel very much. I have seen Iohannis’ Sibiu growing on an almost annual basis. Starting in 1995 I have been there around 10 times and I remember how it looked before – dusty, weary, gloomy. Now the center shines, the Brukenthal Museum is a bijou, there is also the Astra Museum, etc. But what is being applied in Sibiu is taking place around the entire country: One can see that Romania grows slowly, but steadily. Everyone who is sincere can observe it. I am not a Cioranian type of person (Cioran was a nihilist French-Romanian writer – translator’s note). I am not a professional neurotic. It is obvious that Romania rises, in spite of the bumps. A lot of areas remain behind, such as the rural areas of the Baragan Plain around Călăraşi, but at the same time, in rural Bucovina you have the feeling that you are in Austria. There are especially social problems, first of all related to massive emigration. So fundamentally, I am an optimist. But I am aware of the fact that we are in a very fragile equilibrium. Romania is fundamentally a colony. Its owners could lose it while playing cards if they wanted.
So most of all I am worried about our politicians’ servility towards the owners. Looking back at history, I see that this servility, which is probably a remnant from the Phanariot epoch, always made us choose the losing camp the last 100 years. In 1918 it was only the extraordinary international context which didn’t make the sacrifice of 800,000 Romanians a waste. In 1941 the servility towards Germany led the country to the disaster at Stalingrad. After 1945 we were the only country of the East, which had applied the Bolshevik recipe just as it had been applied in the Soviet Union. Now, we are the most influenceable servants of the Americans, which makes me shiver, because the USA is an empire in decline. The multipolar world is already established and is no longer just a hypothesis. Pax Americana is dead and buried. Instead of taking security measures, we follow the American way blindly.
So as a simple man, as a Bucharest citizen, I feel that I am part of a “pattern”, which doesn’t serve me. Romania is developing well: unemployment is low, the economic growth is solid, all my clients’ businesses are growing, etc. But the Romanian political elite is on the road to do evil and the principal agent in this moment is Iohannis.
Before discussing the possible outcomes in the elections, what exactly is the situation of the everyday Romanian and Romania in terms of income, development, direction?
Some people might dislike what I am going to say, but at the moment Romania gives very good opportunities, especially in big cities. When I finished my first university degree in 1998, if somebody wanted to be a teacher – what we became as philosophy graduates – the net salary of a beginning teacher was the equivalent of 30 American dollars. Today this would be equivalent to 125 lei or 56 Bulgarian levas. Could somebody live on a salary of 56 leva? At the same time, rent for a one bedroom apartment in a marginal quarter in Bucharest starts at 100 dollars and reaches 200 dollars in the center. Today, even the most modest job – a guard or a supermarket cashier, receives at least 1,500 lei net, while rents start at 900 lei. That is the situation in all the big cities. The young are probably unhappy because 1,500 lei is not 1,500 euros. But if you had started your professional life in a time when in order to be able to rent a room you had to share with 2-3 other men, you would think otherwise! At my present age, I think it is more important what you do with your money, not how much you earn. I know personally a case of an engineer, who worked in the Silicon Valley was paid 150,000 dollars per year but “was dying of hunger”, because it is very expensive there. He moved to a rural area in the US, where he received only 60,000 dollars, and lived like a king.
Let us look at the large cities in Europe: There are very few places where somebody can have a starting salary as an unqualified labourer, and have that salary cover housing expenditures. It is impossible to think about that in the large metropolises of the West. That is why I refuse to be Cioranian. I am an optimist. I like to see the full part of the glass. Romania is not so “black” as my compatriots who follow Cioran draw it.
How will the vote in November 2019 influence everyday life in the capital?
The problems of the big cities and especially of Bucharest are related to pollution, lack of organisation, and chaotic development. But the November elections will not influence those things. Municipalities are very autonomous with regard to the federal government and are 100% autonomous with regard to the president. At the local level, it is the mayor’s job to attract European funds or any other type of investment and to spend the money well. As a Bucharest citizen I have accumulated many frustrations against Mayor Gabriela Firea’s administration, but I will abstain from transferring those frustrations at the November vote, because the one has no relation to the other. Yes, Firea is from PSD. But if the Prime Minister Dancila, who is the PSD’s candidate, convinces me I will vote for her. So far however, no matter what Firea has done or has not done, Dancila hasn’t shown anything convincing.
How do you see the chances of the other candidates, apart from Iohannis, winning? Could Dan Barna from the Save Romania Union (USR) win unexpectedly? 
As for the other candidates, it is clear that Dan Barna from the USR is an important candidate. Tariceanu could also be a candidate and it looks like he will be allied with the people of Victor Ponta (former PM, who left the PSD, forming a “pro-European” version of PSD – translator’s note). At least Tăriceanu has left this impression, even though we’ve recently been hearing that he is preparing to throw “a bomb”, leaving his place to Mircea Diaconu. I have seen Liviu Pleşoianu gathering signatures. He is a kind of dissident in the PSD, but I don’t know how to categorise him. He started his parliamentary career voting in accordance with the official line. He voted in support of the scandalous Patriot missiles acquisition contract, by which Romania transferred a sum of 4.7 billion dollars to the American military-industrial complex. Afterwards, he took some strange positions. At first, I thought he was “a dissident with permission from those in power”. But now I don’t know what to think, because he crossed a few lines in relation to the West, making claims that are not permissible in the public sphere (e.g. that Romania is a (economic) colony of West). Now he is some kind of sovereigntist. Also, Claudiu Crăciun from Demos has announced his candidacy. But it remains to be seen if he will manage to gather 200,000 signatures. In spring, at the European elections, Demos was far off from this goal.
What about Barna’s chances? Probably he wasn’t attacked enough to erode his electoral power. Personally, I have great doubts that somebody could reach a high-profile political position, without close ties to the internal intelligence service. So, in other words, this man is suspect. I don’t know who or how many of my generation – people aged 40 and up, who have made money without shady deals or without their parents being “well positioned”. I think it is only a matter of time to find curious details from the past of this man or of somebody from his family. His wife, for example, is employed by a multinational company with a great salary and could be his Achilles’ heel. Such a position or salary is not accessible to everyone.
It depends on what role Dan Barna will have reserved in the great theatre play in the autumn. Is he to be only a sparring partner for Iohannis? Should he only gather a number of votes, which are to be given to the president on the second round? If the latter is true, he will probably continue to be the same guy who will receive 15-20% from disciplined voters, which the USR can mobilise. If he is serious with regards to the presidency, he will be severely attacked in the media and we will laugh at what is said about him. There are already some Dan Barna memes on Facebook and there are also real attacks. I have even seen an article which accused him of taking European money and then giving it to people from the #rezist movement, or something like that. Such bad publicity could be “small warnings” to him, so that he will stay calm and not do more than is necessary. Otherwise, he could face major attacks. We will see in time.
The real counter candidate to Iohannis is Tăriceanu, or if not him then the joint candidate of ALDE and Pro Romania. It remains to see who it will be. It could be Tăriceanu or it could be Mircea Diaconu. Mircea Diaconu is a well-known actor and the public easily recognises him. He is ethical and generates sympathy, unlike Tăriceanu, who has a tumultuous family life and is disconnected from the masses. I ran against him for the Senate in 2012 and hate him for his arrogance and self-sufficiency. My “electoral confrontation” with him – in the times when he was standing shoulder to shoulder with the present leader of the National Liberal Party Ludovic Orban, showed his pretentiousness. But Ţăriceanu is an old politician; he has a lot of experience. The spring European elections results (when his party didn’t pass the electoral threshold) don’t have to be taken seriously. Tăriceanu always has the capacity to mobilise 10% of voters. It is clear that his alliance with Ponta could be a reminder of the glorious image of the Social Liberal Union (union between PSD and National Liberal Party), which won the 2012 elections with 60%. My opinion is that the ALDE – Pro Romania  alliance has a great chance to have its candidate in the second tour of the elections, especially given that the PSD candidate is so weak.
What is the state of the governing party, PSD?
It is in a full decay and I think it will continue to decline. Although they won the 2016 parliamentary elections with 45% and almost had Ponta as president in 2014, these politicians have made great mistakes in the times of Dragnea by changing the anti-corruption laws. Also, even if they get angry when they are called “communists”, the reality is that after Ceauşescu, Dragnea was the first leader to be taken out of power with, excuse me for the expression, a “kick in the ass”. Dragnea’s own party showed that it is a group of stupid, subservient, and frightened politicians. This is unacceptable. I won’t comment on how just the accusations against Dragnea were. They might have been unjust, especially in the case of his first conviction, related to taking people to referendum in 2012. But let us compare that with the situation in 1989: Ceauşescu refused to give up power and consequently, was executed. The same is happening now. I think that as an intelligent political man, one has to understand certain “signs”. They were not few. Dragnea didn’t understand anything. Those around him did exactly as the executive committee of the communist party did under Ceauşescu. They supported him until the bitter end, despite all the signs that they were going to the abyss. This is not a party, but a gang.
It is a monomaniacal gang, which is united behind fixed ideas. The candidacy of Mrs. Dăncilă also shows the craziness of power, when it is exercised monomaniacally. Anyone who can think reasonably knows that the greatest chances against Iohannis would have a common candidate of PSD – ALDE – Pro România (Pro România being the party of Victor Ponta, while ALDE is where Tăriceanu is leader – translator’s note). But ever since Iliescu was in power the PSD politicians are taught  that they “have to” have their own candidate. Why? Because that’s it. So that they can flex their muscles and their show their disdain for electoral strategy. I think that the poor results of Mrs. Dăncilă – who will take maximum 15%, means that the PSD will not outgrow mediocre performances for a long time.
At the end, as a left-wing man I am more interested in the possibility of a real left-wing alternative to PSD. I think that it would be good if some groups abandon their fixed ideas. I was a member of the Romanian Socialist Party (PSR) for many years and I was even in the top leadership. The current President Rotaru will not run again, which means that somebody else could use the party’s infrastructure. I can declare with hand on my heart that the way I know PSR it will have no problem to cooperate with a party, such as Demos. But Demos seems to be fixed in the rigidity of identity politics, which whether we like it or not, repulses a big part of the population. Their discourse constantly uses Americanised topics such as LGBT rights and “gender fluid” concepts, which don’t attract anyone but the hipsters of Bucharest, and probably, the hipsters of Cluj Napoca. On the other hand, the PSR needs to understand that the old glory of the working class from the times of Ceauşescu has gone away and has been consumed. Both groups could renounce some discursive rigidities. If they cooperate, they could have a beautiful political figure. In the May European elections PSR obtained 38,000 votes, which is good progress in comparison with previous results. 38,000 votes means that a medium city voted for you. With a little bit of effort you could reach 100,000 votes and even more. But if every force, which places itself to the left of PSD stays in meditation, fixed upon its belly, then it will not be possible to give birth to something new.
It is interesting that you mention the new left, but before going further on this issue, in what sense is anti-corruption a dividing line for the Romanian presidential candidates?
My take is that, happily, when Dragnea was thrown in the prison the topic of anti-corruption has become almost non-existing in public space. The protest of the 10th August 2019 was a complete failure. I live less than a kilometer away from Victoria Square and I know what I am saying, because I can very easily witness all major events, which take place there. In fact, the supporters of anti-corruption have been without an “object of hate” now that Dragnea has been convicted. Additionally, after some recent scandals and, first of all, because of the Caracal scandal, it looks like other major topics have arisen: Not so much corruption as incompetence, stupidity, and paralysis of institutions. But these problems refer to all the candidates in the elections. Let’s say that the PSD has politicised a lot of institutions. Wasn’t the president and the USR the strongest supporters of “the republic of prosecutors”? How does it happen that a prosecutor comes with special forces to arrest a child in his own house, while in another case, a prosecutor blocks the police from entering the house of an individual suspected of rape, murder, and abduction? People are unhappy and suffer because of all these political forces. Happily these scandals are more complex and can’t be valorised by any one political actor – as it happened with “anti-corruption”.
The cherry on top of anti-corruption would be the appointment of Laura Koveşi to a cozy position in Bruxelles as European chief prosecutor. Should Boyko Borisov fear that? Stay calm, Borisov. All your corrupt (Bulgarian) people can relax;  if they know “who to bow to”, they won’t suffer at all. They just need to keep it fine with the USA and Germany and everything will be “business as usual” under the mandate of Mrs. Koveşi.
You told me that there are two left-wing parties – Demos and PSR, which could cooperate in the future, but this is somewhat surprising. Isn’t there a lot which divides them – the attitude towards the EU, the generational division between the young and the old, etc.? What would be the future of this non-PSD left, when we take into consideration that the number of strikes in Romania grows?
Demos and the PSR are divided not so much by the EU, as by NATO. The PSR is not anti-EU. On the contrary, the European Left Party, the party family to which it belongs to, is based on “eurocommunism” which is the respectable European communism that gave Europe the welfare state and is not Bolshevik communism. But the PSR is clearly against NATO. At the moment Demos’ position towards NATO is unclear. They are probably pro-European.
I don’t see any future for either party if they remain divided. Indeed, strikes have occurred and it is honourable that Demos has reacted to them, while the PSR has remained asleep. On the other hand, PSR has organised a protest against American aggression in Venezuela, where Demos was not present. I don’t think that this divide is necessary . On the part of the older ones, they are fixated on outdated thought and manners, while Demos is too shy to support any cause which contradicts the dominant cultural mindset. In the case of strikes, it is symptomatic that they were unleashed by the workers in the industry constructed after 1990, and even after 2005. The people at the PSR are completely unconnected to the workers in these new factories. They had connections with the people and the old labour unions from the older factories, which no longer exist. Before being absorbed into the PSD in 2002, the predecessor of the PSR – the Socialist Labour Party, used to get 5,000-10,000 votes in regions with a strong working-class base, such as Dolj, Prahova, Galaţi, etc. But the industry there is dead. Now there are other things there. However, PSR has remained with the same discourse, which is valid for the old industrial capacities, without seeing how exploitation is happening in new forms of production, which uphold the dogma of the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur is a source of precarity, not of welfare. Among the physical persons in Romania 1% – some advocates, consultants, etc, are millionaires. Then around 10% – in principle those from IT, who are neither rich, nor poor, and then around 90% who are in a sorry economic state. In service industries there are hundreds of thousands of workers: bodyguards, couriers, etc. For example, the biggest courier company in Romania, Fan Courier has some 6,900 employees. They produce neither steel, nor lifts. They transport letters and parcels from one place to another!
Also, new forms of capitalist exploitation have appeared, especially in the domain of “the sharing economy”. Bucharest is full of young people who drive bicycles with soup or kebabs on their backs, risking their lives for coins. These men are not represented by anyone and when one of them dies on the street, no one defines the problem – that the bicyclist is at work, that he has to have clear conditions for his job. There is a company which benefits off his back.
What don’t the two parties understand?
People still sincerely think that if they see a glamourous show on HBO or on Netflix, then capitalism is probably glamorous, too. They don’t understand that if they are bicycling for some venomous corporations, and some accident happens and a truck runs them over, they don’t even have social benefits for a burial, because they work on the black market. They don’t think that this is a “insecure job” and should be giving them some more benefits than a job at the supermarket. Instead, they have no social security and bicycle through the most polluted and congested cities in Europe. In other words, this is not work, but punishment, and in the long-term it makes you ill. These are unexplored zones of contemporary capitalism. The PSR doesn’t understand this capitalism, while Demos fights for an identitarian, self-colonising discourse. Ok, as a socialist, as a Marxist, I have always believed in decriminalization of homosexuality and for the drastic punishment of homophobic discourses and attitudes, but I can’t agree with an autocolonising cultural discourse, sustained by Demos, which seems to be the offspring of the Democratic Party of the US. We know that it is a capitalist party like any other, but in the USA it is considered left-wing, just because the Republican Party today is the extreme right-wing force.
I can’t agree with some of Demos’s proposals for “recognition of the work of sex workers”, which brings them closer to Traian Băsescu! I can’t be a hypocrite – like the Orthodox church, keep my head in the sand, pretending not to see how much prostitution there is in Romania today. Romania is the number one source of prostitution in Europe. And of videochat. But to sell your body in a most brutal and direct form can never be “a career option”. Those at Demos should know that. To propose legalisation of prostitution in a country where the so-called sex workers are not only beaten, trafficked, terrorised, and sold into prostitution, means to shake hands with the mafia clans. I don’t mind putting order among mafia clans and afterwards, if there are women who want to realise themselves as sex workers to legalise their activity. But not now, when the activity comes together with all kinds of bandits, who abduct young girls on the street and give them lives of suffering. With such proposals and such discourse those at Demos only show how separated from reality they are. It is understandable, given that they come from the cozy university medium.
In conclusion, the future of the left after the expected death of the PSD is dark. The creation of a new pole which could replace the old left – as Syriza did in Greece, is still a far off dream. But let us remain optimists. With a sufficient amount of realism, we could make something.
Photo: Lucian Sârbu (source: Lucian Sârbu)
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